Saturday 5th January 2019
Tories are warming to the idea of Brexit without an Agreement – and even the EU plans to make it work
On Wednesday next week, with just 79 days before Brexit is due, MPs will commence the debate on whether to accept Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. The crucial vote will come the following week.
As we go through the division lobbies, MPs will have in mind how their own constituents voted in the referendum. Mine supported Brexit by almost 60 per cent. But Tory MPs, particularly those with an eye on the leadership, will reflect on another poll, too. This week, YouGov found that 57 per cent of Conservative Party members would prefer no deal, and only 23 per cent Mrs May’s deal.
Assuming that the Prime Minister does not secure major concessions from the EU, it seems unlikely therefore that my colleagues will have had a sudden change of heart in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement by the time of the vote. If anything, opinion could be shifting the other way. A no-deal exit is beginning to look a lot more attractive.
Why? The scare stories haven’t stopped. Some ministers have warned of a “catastrophe” if the Withdrawal Agreement is rejected while some more militant Remain MPs have threatened to resign the Tory whip. Fear of falling off a cliff edge terrifies them. And so it should. But it terrifies the EU too. And in recent weeks, it has become apparent that a no-deal Brexit disaster is just not going to happen.
Just before Christmas, the first tranche of a whole series of no-deal mitigation measures was published by Brussels.
Look at it from the EU’s point of view. Brexit is a tragedy for Brussels. Apart from the blow to the European project, the UK represents over 20 per cent of the total EU economy and is by far the second largest net contributor to the EU budget. But for EU member states, the greatest danger lies in the economic damage they will suffer if there really were to be a catastrophic no deal. If they could not continue to trade with us easily, or were to expel wealthy British retirees and those with holiday homes, it would spell economic collapse. Chiantishire and the Costa Brava would never be the same.
The UK has always had huge leverage in our trade with the EU. We are the biggest export market in the world for the all-important German automotive industry. In France, President Macron knows that the gilets jaunes would be joined by tens of thousands of angry French farmers if they could not export their goods to their largest market: Britain.
So in anticipation of the Withdrawal Agreement being rejected by Parliament, the EU has taken unilateral action. Just before Christmas, the first tranche of a whole series of no-deal mitigation measures was published by Brussels.
EU member states were urged to permit Brits legally living in the EU on March 29 to remain resident without hindrance. The likes of Italy have already begun to assure British citizens of their residency rights in the event of no deal. Air safety licences, meanwhile, will be recognised to allow continued air travel between the EU and the UK and vice versa. Road haulage operators will be allowed to continue to operate.
Other scare stories have been exposed as foolish, too. The EU, for example, has clarified that “passenger cars registered in the United Kingdom will be allowed to drive to the European Union and vice-versa.” In a no-deal scenario, “UK driving licences will be recognised in the European Union (and vice-versa)”. More EU measures will be announced in January and February to ensure a smooth transition after Brexit, with or without a Withdrawal Agreement.
London recognises the need for this too, and £2 billion was allocated just before Christmas to provide Government departments with the wherewithal to make similar provisions this side of the Channel. No-deal planning appears to be far more advanced than some would have us believe.
A catastrophic no deal is off the table.
So the predictions of doom – planes being forbidden to fly over Europe, mass expulsions of ex pats and so on – voiced by arch-Remainers determined to overthrow the decision of the electorate will not come to pass. There will be a deal. Some are giving it the oxymoronic title of a Managed No Deal or a Mitigated No Deal. But whatever it is called, a catastrophic no deal is off the table.
All this will provide the much needed transition period this country – and the EU – needs before a fully comprehensive trade agreement can be negotiated. In fairness, this is precisely what Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker have consistently said since the referendum: that trade negotiations could only start after Brexit, but that these would lead to the most comprehensive and all-embracing trade agreement ever between the EU and a “third country”.
Isn’t that precisely what the majority of those who voted Leave wanted in the first place? Theresa May has said that she recognises that a Brexit in name only would be politically devastating. The irony is that by rejecting her deal, that danger can be avoided, and increasing numbers are beginning to realise it.